Ed Miliband has long been fascinated by the conviction and charisma of the Iron Lady – and there are intriguing similarities in their records in opposition and radical spirit
Twenty-three years ago, on the morning that a cornered Margaret Thatcher announced she was standing down as prime minister, Ed Miliband was a student at Oxford. “Ted”, as he was known then by his university friends, was a slightly fogeyish, contained young man, remembered for his awkward jumpers and kind but serious manner. Yet that morning, “He was ecstatic,” a friend told his biographers Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre. “We didn’t leave the college TV room for 24 hours. It was the biggest event of our lives.”
Since then Miliband has risen, sometimes smoothly and sometimes not, from student politician to New Labour backroom player, MP to respected minister, dark horse party leadership contender to shock winner, written-off opposition leader to increasingly possible prime minister. In many ways, Britain has changed profoundly since that morning in 1990. Thatcher herself, once a ubiquitous public figure, is now a frail 87-year-old, rarely seen or photographed.
But for Miliband, a fascination with her remains. “She was a conviction politician, and I think conviction really matters,” he told a Radio 4 documentary about his political thinking last November. “In the 1970s [when she became Tory leader], it was a similar moment [to now] … the old order was crumbling, and it wasn’t 100% clear what was going to replace it.”
Members of Miliband’s unusually small inner circle are also open about their preoccupation with – and even sometimes admiration for – what Thatcher subsequently achieved in her 15 years as opposition leader and prime minister. “Her pragmatic brilliance built a coalition that contested the centre ground and bolted in parts of the working class,” wrote the MP Jon Cruddas, Miliband’s chief policy strategist, usually considered on the thoughtful left of the party, in the Guardian last September.
Last March, Marc Stears, a close friend and political collaborator of Miliband’s since university, wrote on the new leftwing blog Shifting Grounds that Thatcher, like Tony Blair and Clement Attlee, “made Britain think again about what was possible in politics”. She “drew on arguments from outside the mainstream and transformed them into a new politics … Unlikely alliances emerge when people are encouraged to see the world anew.” In 2011, another important Miliband loyalist and thinker, the Labour peer Stewart Wood, wrote in the Fabian Review: “Neoliberalism began in the late 1970s with Margaret Thatcher … Its political success – both for parties of the right and shaping perceptions of political space … has been extraordinary. As a governing project, it held out the promises of an end to social division, national renewal and prosperity for all.”
Many Labour supporters, and other critics and victims of Britain’s most controversial modern premier, may wonder what on earth is going on – or get a sinking feeling that we have been here before. Blair, infamously, invited Thatcher to No 10 within three weeks of being elected prime minister. “God, she is so strong,” Blair is recorded as saying afterwards in Alastair Campbell’s diaries. Gordon Brown met her there, too, three months into his premiership. He described her, just like Miliband, as a “conviction politician”. David Cameron also had Thatcher to Downing Street, in the first month of the coalition government. “It’s good to have her back,” he said, as if she had ever really been away.
In old countries such as Britain, truly charismatic and “transformative” – to use a current Labour buzzword – national leaders are rare, and cast long shadows. For less commanding politicians to associate themselves with one can be a crude piece of political positioning, often only fleetingly effective, and sometimes counterproductive. In November, the former Thatcher cabinet member and current Tory MP Sir Malcolm Rifkind derided Labour’s efforts to draw parallels between her and Miliband: “He has as much claim to the mantle of Margaret Thatcher as Silvio Berlusconi had to that of Julius Caesar.” The still-Thatcherite Tory press has been equally dismissive.
But Miliband has a history of being underestimated – just as she was when opposition leader, and during her early years as prime minister. Like her, he was unexpectedly elected party leader. Like her, his public manner was then quickly judged unpalatable, his voice too nasal as hers was too shrill. Like her, he can seem too much of a party stereotype for broad appeal: the bourgeois north London leftie to her prim shire Tory. Like she did, he faces a smooth premier – “Sunny Jim” Callaghan for her, David Cameron for him – considered by journalists and voters to be more “prime ministerial”, but also made vulnerable by internal splits and the lack of a Commons majority. As she did, Miliband has led his party to a substantial but not always solid poll lead. Two and a quarter years into his tenure, it is identical to her party’s at the same stage: hovering around 10%.
Like her in the 70s, Miliband has nevertheless often seemed beleaguered. Thatcher’s biographer John Campbell records: “She was even more on trial than most new leaders, facing a mixture of scepticism, curiosity and … condescension … She had seized the leadership as a result of a backbench revolt against the party establishment, opposed by practically the whole of her predecessor’s shadow cabinet. Even those who had campaigned for her were not sure what they had persuaded the party to elect, and the party in the country did not know her at all.” By the 1979 general election, she still trailed Callaghan as “best prime minister” by a huge 19% in Mori’s regular poll, and the gap was widening. Miliband trails Cameron by 8% in similar recent polls by YouGov, and the margin is slowly narrowing.
Thatcher won power regardless. A close Miliband ally points out that she was the last British opposition leader to manage the difficult political trick of the “one-term return”: getting your party, recently rejected by voters, back into office at the first opportunity. “Hers is an interesting model to look at, for how you win,” he continues. “She recognised she had to differentiate herself not just from Callaghan and Labour but also from her own party under Edward Heath,” the ultimately disastrous Tory prime minister between 1970 and 1974. “You don’t get back into power by telling the electorate they were wrong last time. You have to be a change candidate.”
Three days after becoming party leader in 2010, Miliband broke with New Labour as publicly as possible by condemning the 2003 Iraq war in a speech to the Labour conference. He has ostentatiously challenged orthodoxies, both New Labour and Tory, at regular intervals since: attacking Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, the “predatory” aspects of capitalism, the coalition’s benefit cuts, successive governments’ neglect of “the squeezed middle”, and the state subsidy of low wages as a route to national economic competitiveness – a central policy of the Blair and Brown administrations in which he served.
Many of these political gambles have been surprisingly effective, shaping public debate and discomfiting the government; together, they have gradually given Miliband’s stop-start leadership some momentum. This time last year, he had no poll lead, and speculation was widespread that his days as leader were numbered; but since last spring, Labour’s ratings have been consistently better. Political commentators have started to tentatively test out the phrase “Miliband government”.
“We’ve found being courageous works for us,” says Wood. “We err on the side of boldness much more nowadays.” Yet this approach is more than pragmatism. It also reflects something deeper. Miliband, like Thatcher before him, wants to overturn not just many of the policies of his immediate predecessors, but also a whole system of assumptions that has been entrenched for decades.
For her, the enemy was the “postwar consensus”, the formica-and-pipe-smoke world of strong unions, nationalised industries, sometimes fussily regulated businesses and broad agreement between the main parties, which had held Britain together with increasing strain since the 40s. For him, the enemy is what she helped erect in its place: a market-dominated, less equal, more mercurial and abrasive Britain, which has begun to seem unsustainable in turn since the financial crisis started in 2008. In his Fabian Review essay, Wood called Thatcherism “the god that failed”. In a 2011 paper for the Institute for Public Policy Research, Stears said it had had “horrific consequences”, “deepening divisions” and created “a transactional mindset encouraging us to look on our fellow citizens more as objects than people”. In a New Statesman interview with Hasan the same year, an “animated” Miliband blamed Thatcherism for “employers who don’t take responsibility … the triumph of finance over industry … an ethic of take-what-you-can … the short term, the fast buck.” He concluded: “All that has got to change.”
“This has been lurking for a long time in Ed’s head,” says someone who knows him well. “He wants to break the consensus. What really attracts Ed to Thatcherism is its insurgency. A group of people seized the levers of the state, and effected a change in public consciousness.” In short, Miliband wants to be both “the Labour Thatcher”, as his adviser Neal Lawson of the leftwing pressure group Compass puts it, in the scale of his ambitions and the daring of his political methods, and the anti-Thatcher, in his actual policies and overall social philosophy, changing the Britain she largely created in a way that Blair and Brown never dared.
It is just the sort of complicated notion Miliband relishes. The son of the late Marxist thinker Ralph Miliband, he is a busy consumer of political books and ideas, and unapologetically intellectual – a quality that for decades many Westminster participants and observers have considered redundant, or even dangerous. His aides and allies, too, can be discursive and professorial – Wood and Stears teach at Oxford – in a way that still comes as a shock after the terse, rather macho press briefings of New Labour.
But does Miliband actually have any chance of beating Thatcherism at its own game? In so many ways, he is a completely different character: mild-mannered where she was regal, empathetic where she was confrontational, often frustratingly low-key in public where she was always compelling. Yet, Lawson says: “He’s the best Labour leader to do this. No one should underestimate his steel. He’s always thought, or wanted to think, that Thatcherism would eventually lose its hold. But his personality is open, respectful … He’s psychologically ready to make the broad alliances Labour needs.”
The philosopher John Gray, once a Thatcherite himself, says: “The Thatcher settlement has come unstuck, and it’s not coming back. But market thinking in the political classes is still hegemonic. Among the public, there is anger about the banks. People are somewhat concerned about inequality, corporate tax avoidance. Does that add up to a sufficiently deep reservoir of contempt for Thatcherism for Miliband to exploit? There definitely isn’t anything comparable to the mood for change the New Right exploited in the 70s.”
Then, Thatcher rode a deep swell of ideas that had been building in boardrooms and thinktanks, newspapers and universities, pressure groups and political parties, for at least 30 years. Miliband, his allies admit, has a lonelier task. “One of our frustrations,” says one, “has been that so much of the heavy lifting has had to be done by Ed himself.”
Ferdinand Mount was one of the heads of the Downing Street policy unit under Thatcher, but has been increasingly preoccupied as an author since by the social downsides of her rule. He says Miliband’s “talk” is “interesting”: he cites his advocacy of “predistribution”, the idea that better wages rather than tax credits should sustain working-class incomes in an era of state austerity. “But quite what government does about this is the problem,” Mount continues. “Tone isn’t enough if you’re going to change anything. You have to arrive in power with some definite policy lines.”
Miliband’s allies insist he has plenty – for example, much more genuine banking reform and a tax system tougher on the wealthy and profit-hiding companies. But it is striking that, among all the well-informed references they make to Thatcher in the 70s, to her bristling speeches and vaguer policy documents then, the artefact they cite most reverently and often is her famously light-on-detail 1979 general election manifesto.
“For me,” begins the brief foreword, signed by her, “the heart of politics is not political theory, it is people and how they want to live their lives … This manifesto contains no magic formula or lavish promises. But it sets out a broad framework … based not on dogma, but on reason, on common sense …” The manifesto proper continues: “Many things will have to wait until the economy has been revived … [But] we may be able to do more in the next five years than we indicate here.”
In its skilful intertwining of the feelgood and plain-spoken, of populist generalisations and tantalising hints of radicalism, in its ambitious but shrewd attempt to turn ideology into “common sense”, the manifesto reads rather like one of Miliband’s better speeches. But what the slim pamphlet’s admirers in his circle mention less often is the profound difficulties Thatcher got into in the years immediately after its publication. Between 1979 and 1982, Thatcherism, for all its energy and originality, frequently seemed a doomed experiment, and might have remained so without the semi-fortuitous foundation of the SDP and the war in the Falklands. The rareness of radical governments in Britain can make voters highly intolerant of them.
A Miliband ally fears that getting elected will be the easy part for Ed, too. “In power, think of the forces that may be against us: civil servants, the Bank of England, the press, who hate Ed over [his support for Lord] Leveson. A resurgent Tory party under Gove or Boris.” Yet some of these traditional foes of leftwing Labour politicians are weaker than they were: the Tory press has lost readers, the Tory party has not won a general election for 20 years. And powerful but declining enemies can be the best sort for a prime minister to have, as Thatcher found when she took on Arthur Scargill. Some Miliband-watchers believe he needs not fewer enemies but more, to give his still-fuzzy public persona sharper definition.
Despite the financial crisis and all its political and economic fallout, despite Miliband’s efforts, many British voters remain unengaged, with recent election turnouts often even worse than during the sleepy boom years. In the 70s and 80s, Britain was far more politicised; it was much easier for Thatcher to recruit the millions of true believers that an iconoclastic leader needs.
Gray lists other obstacles: globalisation has gone much further, limiting what any prime minister can achieve; Britain’s problems have grown more entrenched, and less responsive to bold, easy-to-explain solutions; and the world economy is more thoroughly troubled than it was in the Thatcher era. And yet, he can’t completely suppress an excitement that British politics may just be starting to get interesting again. “The Miliband project is something fresh,” he says. “And there is a strong need for something fresh.” We’ve been waiting for it, in many ways, since that morning in 1990.